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State, local officials look for solutions after Atlantic City needle exchange program repealed by council
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State, local officials look for solutions after Atlantic City needle exchange program repealed by council

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Needle Exchange

Mike Nees, speaks at a rally in front of City Hall in Atlantic City on July 6. Councilwoman Latoya Dunston join South Jersey AIDS Alliance, advocates, residents, family members, and syringe service providers in support of a permanent, fixed site syringe access program in Atlantic City and expanded syringe services throughout New Jersey. On July 21, the city council will take its second vote to get rid of the city's needle exchange, this event is to raise awareness in order to save it. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

Councilwoman Latoya Dunston join South Jersey AIDS Alliance, advocates, residents, family members, and syringe service providers in support of a permanent, fixed site syringe access program in Atlantic City and expanded syringe services throughout New Jersey. On July 21, the city council will take its second vote to get rid of the city's needle exchange, this event is to raise awareness in order to save it.

ATLANTIC CITY — After City Council voted 7-2 to repeal the resort’s clean syringe exchange program during a five-hour meeting Wednesday night, local and state officials have pledged to work with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance to come up with a solution.

“I’m positive that we will come up with a concentrated solution to deal with this crisis,” council Vice President Kaleem Shabazz said Thursday.

While Shabazz wouldn’t go into specifics, he said the idea of creating a mobile syringe access program is on the table.

“We talked about that two years ago, and I think as part of a solution, the mobile unit has some attractiveness,” Shabazz said. “And we recently saw the Department of Health implement a mobile unit for COVID-19 vaccines, so it’s really not a radical idea.”

With the decision from council, the program has 30 days to shut down.

Carol Harney, executive director of the AIDS Alliance, said the alliance, too, is committed to working on a solution with city and state officials.

“Despite promises from council members, South Jersey AIDS Alliance has yet to be included in a stakeholders meeting,” Harney said in a statement late Wednesday night. “We are committed to working with Governor (Phil) Murphy and the Atlantic City Council to find a permanent location for South Jersey AIDS Alliance that is accessible for Atlantic City residents outside of the Tourism District.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, supporters of the needle exchange made clear that they believe a mobile unit is not effective enough for the program.

“If the data said the best place to put a program is in a van on a highway out of a municipality, we would be doing that,” Jennifer Dunkle, a professor of social work at Stockton University, told council. “But the data shows it needs to be a fixed site. Mobile sites are very useful in conjunction with a fixed site. It’s not either or.”

In 2018, when the mobile syringe access units were first proposed by three council members, Harney said the method would be “dramatically less effective” than having a fixed site.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said she was disappointed that the decision to close the program did not involve more collaboration.

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“I always believe in problem solving and partnerships when addressing community challenges, and I am disappointed that such collaboration did not happen in this situation regarding the sterile syringe exchange program in Atlantic City,” Oliver said in a statement Thursday. “But there is still an opportunity to identify a solution to ensure this valuable service continues to be provided for people in Atlantic City and the region who are battling substance abuse.”

Oliver said she believes council understands the importance of the program and hopes they will work with the state.

“Sterile syringe exchanges are often the first step on the path to substance abuse treatment,” Oliver said. “And I hope that City Council will work together with us as we consider alternatives.”

The exchange, which is run out of the Oasis Drop-In Center on Tennessee Avenue, has long been debated by city officials, with its location in the city’s Tourism District and its effectiveness being the biggest concerns.

Council cast the first vote for an ordinance to repeal the program June 16. That vote was also 7-2 in favor of repealing the program.

Despite vocal objections from advocacy groups and Wilson Washington, the city’s director of health and human services, council doubled down Wednesday and passed the ordinance to repeal.

Over more than three hours, nearly 50 people spoke in support of the exchange. Two people spoke in favor of repealing the program.

“The Atlantic City council members ignored the testimony of every speaker and instead chose rumors and stigma over the health and well-being of their constituents,” Caitlin O’Neill, director of harm reduction services at the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said in a statement. “It’s as if our three hours of heartfelt testimonies in support of Oasis went unheard. I fear for the health, dignity and safety of all Atlantic City residents without an accessible syringe service program.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said he was deeply disappointed in the decision.

“This action will endanger some of the city’s most at-risk residents and contradicts my Administration’s comprehensive, data-driven strategy to end the opioid crisis,” Murphy said on Twitter. “Now, more than ever, because of the increase in opioid-related deaths, is the time to push forward and continue in our broader efforts to expand harm reduction centers across the state.”

Last week, Murphy said in a statement that his administration is “committed to ensuring that Atlantic City and area residents continue to have access to these evidence-based and life-saving services.”

The first needle exchange program in the country opened in San Francisco in 1988.

The exchange in Atlantic City was the first of its kind in the state when it opened in 2007. Today, it is one of seven in New Jersey, along with programs in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30 years of research have shown such programs are cost effective, help reduce drug overdoses, encourage users to seek treatment and reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis.

Research from the CDC also shows exchange programs do not lead to more needles being discarded around communities. Officials from the AIDS Alliance said Atlantic City’s needle exchange garnered a 98% return rate.

Contact Molly Shelly:

609-272-7241

mshelly@pressofac.com

Twitter @mollycshelly

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